This feature is part of The Tsars of Football
On 23 April 2016, Andrey Arshavin celebrated his first goal in 18 months. These days, the Russian wizard is 35-year-old and he is no longer scoring goals at Europe’s most fashionable addresses. Instead, Arshavin finds himself playing for Kazakh side Kairat Almaty.
Halfway through the season, Kairat are third in the Kazakh league, and Arshavin has established himself as one of the key players for the side Nikolai Starostin coached for a while during his involuntary exile from Moscow. Interestingly enough, Arshavin’s goal against Aktobe came seven years and two days after he scored four goals at Anfield in what was the highlight of his stint in England, and the difference between Arsenal’s famous red and Central Stadium in Almaty couldn’t be any bigger.
The story about Arshavin is the story about a boy who, despite a rough upbringing in Leningrad, developed into one of the best football players in Russia’s history, and into a man the whole nation, in spite of club affiliation, could support and love as he became better and better. It is however, unfortunately, also the story about an unusual talent that was wasted because of laziness and dissatisfaction.
Arshavin was given his debut for Zenit Saint Petersburg’s first team in 2000, and it didn’t take him long to become a regular for the club. This was a very different Zenit team to the one we see today. The club was struggling financially, finding it impossible keep up with their richer rivals from Moscow. On the flip side, this made the road to the first team easier for a heralded generation of Saint Petersburg-born players. In the years before and after Arshavin, players like Vyacheslav Malafeev, Igor Denisov and Aleksandr Kerzhakov all came into the team too. As a result of that, Zenit possessed some of Russia’s brightest talents at the time Gazprom bought the club in 2005.
A few months prior, Zenit head coach Vlastimil Petrzela had infamously stated that “Zenit will never become champions,” referring to the Muscovite conspiracies against Zenit and Saint Petersburg that many of the club’s fans thought existed. However, soon after Gazprom’s takeover the club, things rapidly changed as Zenit spent millions of euros on new players in the following years, and also started the construction of the stadium that will be used at the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020.
Unlike today, where none of the players in Zenit’s squad were born in the Saint Petersburg area, the backbone of the Zenit team that won the club’s first Russian championship in 2007 was made of local players. That title was only Zenit’s second title win and, when they won 1-0 away against Saturn Ramenskoye in the suburbs to Moscow, they became the second club from outside of Moscow to win the Russian championship. It ended a 15-year Muscovite monopoly on the Russian title, which made it even sweeter.
This was also a time when scouts all over Europe were starting to realise the abnormal amount of talent running around at Petrovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg. A few months after winning the title, Arshavin was celebrated as man of the match of the 2008 UEFA Cup final, after Zenit had defeated Rangers in Manchester. Arshavin assisted Denisov’s opening goal and was absolutely instrumental from his spot on the left wing.
Kerzhakov had already left Zenit to join Sevilla at this point, and it was clear that the era of the local lads was slowly coming to an end. The 27-year-old Arshavin was by far the brightest star on the team.
Briefly after the victory in Manchester, Arshavin’s reputation rose even further as the Russian national team went to Austria and Switzerland for Euro 2008. At this point, the national team was mostly connected to failures, as it had been eliminated in the group stage at the previous four major tournaments, it had never managed to replicate the successful campaigns of the Soviet team that won the 1956 Olympics and 1960 Euros, and reached the finals of the 1964, 1972 and 1988 editions.
For Arshavin, Euro 2008 was his debut at an international tournament as Kerzhakov was picked ahead of him for the 2002 World Cup, while Russia failed to qualify for the tournaments in 2004 and 2006. Arshavin was, however, forced to wait until the last group game against Sweden to make his debut due to a two-game suspension, but when he finally entered the tournament, he made sure to leave his mark. Russia defeated Sweden 2-0 courtesy of goals from Arshavin and his Spartak rival Roman Pavlyuchenko, which saw them book a quarter-final tie against the Netherlands.
The game against the Netherlands entered into the history books as one of the best at the Euros and one of the best displays by the Russian national team. Arshavin was once again crucial for Sbornaya as they won 3-1 after extra-time. The following day Arshavin was on the front page of Russia’s oldest sports paper Sovetsky Sport, and he was now ready for the biggest stage.
Although Russia lost in the semi-finals to Spain, Arshavin had left his mark, and alongside teammates Yuri Zhirkov, Konstantin Zyryanov and Pavlyuchenko, was selected in UEFA’s Team of the Tournament.
All of Europe’s top clubs chased Arshavin’s signature following the tournament, but Zenit had no plans of letting their ace leave before the end of the Russian season in December. At one point, Russian news agency Ria Novosti even reported that Zenit had turned down an offer from FC Barcelona, telling them to send Lionel Messi to Saint Petersburg if they wanted Arshavin.
Read | Arshavin and Hleb: the wild talent of two unfulfilled mavericks
Six month later, however, he became Arsenal’s most expensive signing ever as he moved to London and the English Premier League. His first few months with the Gunners showed glimpses of his enormous talent – including his four goals against Liverpool but the move away from Russia also marked the beginning to the end for Arshavin. Just like his team-mates on the Russian national team, Zhirkov, Pavlyuchenko and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, he struggled to settle away from home, and his high salary only seemed to worsened the situation for the seemingly satisfied Russian footballers.
During his time at Arsenal he was often placed on the bench, and manager Arsène Wenger accused him of being both lazy and overweight. Unfortunately for Arshavin, he also faced difficulties in Russia. Following Sbornaya’s disappointing defeat in the play-off qualification for the 2010 World Cup, a Russian documentary revealed that several of the Russian players had been drinking the night before, and in both London as well as Moscow, Arshavin became the poster boy of poor performance.
“Victories are won by the team, but the main scapegoat when we lose is usually Arshavin, and I am used to it,” Arshavin told Russian sports paper Sport-Express after an Arsenal defeat, briefly after Russia had lost to Slovenia in the World Cup qualification.
Two years later, Arshavin lost his last portion of support from the Russian public. After Russia lost to Greece in the last group game of Euro 2012, Arshavin was caught on hidden camera telling an angry group of fans: “If we did not fulfil your expectations, then honestly, these are your problems.”
With that comment, the last trace of the humble and football-loving boy from Leningrad disappeared, and so did the respect. At the same time, Arshavin was one of the faces of an ad campaign by potato chip producer Lays, which gave birth to many jokes about both his weight and mentality.
After the disappointing Euro 2012 campaign, Dick Advocaat was replaced by Fabio Capello, who gave Arshavin 35 minutes of playing time in his debut against the Ivory Coast in August 2012.
In 2013, when his contract with Arsenal expired, Arshavin left England and returned to Russia and Saint Petersburg permanently. “One of the best footballers in Russia of the last decade is returning to his home city,” the Blue-White-Sky Blues wrote on their website after announcing Arshavin’s return to the Venice of the North.
At Zenit he was reunited with former team-mates Malafeev, Kerzhakov, Aleksandr Anyukov, Anatoliy Tymoschuk, Zyryanov and Roman Shirokov, with whom he had celebrated many great triumphs during his first stint at the club. However, the Zenit Arshavin returned to was different from the one he left. The heavy investments from Gazprom into the club had lured famous players like Hulk and Axel Witsel to Russia, but also contributed to the marginalisation of the local players that had for so long been the face of Zenit. Briefly after Arshavin’s return to Russia, Igor Denisov left the club after complaining about the high wages of the new foreigners, and Malafeev lost his spot in goal.
When André Villas-Boas replaced Luciano Spalletti as manager in March 2014, a new chapter was written in Arshavin’s long descent. From being a regular starter under the Italian, Arshavin played just two of the last six games for the Portuguese coach, and in the following season spent most of the time on the bench together with his old friend Kerzhakov; they started just four and six games as Zenit won their first league title since 2012.
By the end of the season, Villas-Boas announced that Arshavin, Tymoschuk and Kerzhakov would all leave the club as they weren’t part of his plans for the future. Arshavin and Tymoschuk left after their contracts expired, while Kerzhakov was demoted to the second team, and when Zenit started their season last summer with the Super Cup game against Lokomotiv Moscow in Saint Petersburg, the most dedicated fans had prepared a large tifo with pictures of Arshavin and Kerzhakov alongside the text, “The lads from our backyard”. It signalled their full support to the dethroned legends, who, despite their waning powers, meant more to the fans than foreigners like Hulk could ever.
Arshavin was afterwards offered a job on Zenit’s staff, but he turned it down to continue his playing career. Alongside former team-mate Pavlyuchenko, he moved to Kuban Krasnodar in southern Russia, where the two former national team stars were supposed to be the faces of what the regional government wanted to brand as the “people’s team”. His stint with Kuban was an unmitigated failure and, this winter, Arshavin left the club after just eight games and no goals. Instead, he joined his former team-mate Tymoschuk in Kazakhstan with the hope finishing his career on a high after the many years of failure.
Arshavin remains one of the finest – if not the finest – football player Russia has produced since the fall of the Soviet Union, but he is also the perfect example of a player who never quite reached his full potential despite having all the tools needed to reach the absolute top. It remains to be seen just what legacy the attacking midfielder will leave on the game in Russia and beyond when he finally retires.
By Toke Theilade. Follow @TokeTheilade